Pakistan's two schools of thought

Western-style schools and religious madrassahs ready for different futures.

In Pakistan, a nation divided between militant Islam and Western-leaning modernity, Mehreen Shahid represents an increasingly unpopular yet pivotal minority.

A student at St. Paul's Cambridge School in this sprawling surburb of Islamabad, she is bright, open-minded, ambitious, and ready to see the world.

Ms. Shahid and her classmates dream, individually, of being highly educated, working as surgeons, engineers, software developers, architects, and physicists. Together, they dream of a better Pakistan, where the best and brightest don't have to leave the country to get ahead.

"Our generation is very intelligent, we can do a lot for Pakistan," says Shahid. Classmate Ali Arsan agrees. "I think we should go out on our own, seek to gain knowledge in the world, and return to our motherland and teach the people who can't afford to go outside."

Those who "can't afford to go outside" include the estimated 600,000 to 700,000 children attending the large and growing number of madrassahs, or religious schools, where the focus is on study and memorization of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

As Pakistan prepares to host an American-led military response against Afghan-based terrorist groups, education is one factor that will help determine the course of the nation's future.

For more than a generation, Pakistan's social divide has been drawn in this Muslim nation's schools. Westernized middle- and upper-class families send their children to private schools like St. Paul's, which, despite its name, is nondenominational. The poor attend either inadequately funded public schools or the madrassahs.

And this gap that marks Pakistan's social divide is turning into a chasm. Street protests, led by religious students, are a daily event. Radical clerics have begun to preach a violent, political version of jihad, or spiritual struggle, against those who support America, even Pakistanis.

Education is one of the key factors that will decide which direction Pakistan heads, whether toward the outward-looking secular state envisioned in 1947 by founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah or toward a more inward-looking path of Islamic conservatism, similar to that of Afghanistan's isolated theocratic rulers, the Taliban. For many Pakistanis, the outcome of this longer-term war is of primary concern.

"These so-called fundamentalists ... are becoming a menace now," says Akhtar Mahmud, a retired government official in Islamabad who describes himself as pro-Western. "Some government had to take them on if Pakistan was to carry on as a state. The US has its own reasons for being against this section of humanity, but people like me feel it is important that these people be contained and put an end to their expansion."

While the military government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has recently begun to rein in sectarian political groups - banning three militant Islamic groups outright, and forbidding others from raising funds or displaying weapons - some Pakistanis argue that the effort is coming too late. After all, it is in the thousands madrassahs where this literal and political version of Islam is being preached to coming generations.

As Pakistan's 141-million population grows, and public schools fail to keep pace, it is madrassahs that are taking up the slack, and shaping the next generation.

While there are no official figures, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, a New Delhi-based think-tank, estimates that there are more than 15,000 madrassahs in Pakistan today, up from fewer than 2,000 in 1979.

"What's the price of ignorance? It's more costly than educating people," says Ardeshir Cowasjee, a longtime columnist for the Dawn, a leading Pakistani newspaper.

"In Pakistan, we have eight births a minute. That's almost 500 births an hour, 12,000 a day, 4 million a year. You need funds to build schools for all these children, and the funds don't match," Mr. Cowasjee says.

"You [Americans] are worried now," he adds. "I've been worried since 1948."

If liberal Pakistanis like Cowasjee are worried, it is because Pakistan's madrassahs are responsible for spawning militant movements like Afghanistan's Taliban rulers.

In 1994, a group of madrassah students answered the call of a charismatic recluse, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to overthrow Afghanistan's unruly mujahideen warlords and purify the country.

Even today, Pakistan's madrassahs frequently empty their halls to send young men to fight for the Taliban during Afghanistan's warmer warring season.

Not all madrassahs are alike, however. While many offer only the most rudimentary math and science, others are more sophisticated, aiming at the same level of education found in Pakistan's more-elite schools.

One of the better-funded madrassahs is the Anjuman Faizul Islam in Rawalpindi.

Here, boys and girls - nearly 700 of whom are orphans - study together up until fifth grade, and then continue their studies separately until grade 10.

This madrassah's library is full of books in both English and the national language, Urdu, from "Gone with the Wind" to "How to Build a Hydropower Dam." The chemistry lab would not look out of place at any American public school. The curriculum includes Islamic studies, to be sure, but the emphasis is on achievement, not on Islamic political causes.

"The big thing in our country is that the illiteracy rate is high [38 percent]. It is ignorance that is making us so backward," says Muhammad Farooqi, principal of Anjuman Faizul Islam.

"The basic aim is so that this orphan, this poor child, he should not become a beggar or a burden to his family. Whosoever is a lady person should not be left behind. We are all human beings created by Allah, the master of the universe," he says.

Students educated in this progressive-minded madrassah, where some female teachers don't even wear headscarves, share many of the dreams of the children of St. Paul's. Ninth-grader Muhammad Aqeer wants to be a software developer. So does classmate Abid Hassan, who also plays a pretty mean game of cricket.

At St. Paul's, Ali Arsan says that education shouldn't be just for individuals to get ahead. Educated Pakistanis must come back to help their country.

"We are the future of Pakistan, we have to make it a better country," says Ali, who attended a madrassah for two years before coming to St. Paul's last year.

"We'll try our best, and in 10 years, Pakistan will be a great country."

Behind him, a number of students whisper reflexively, in unison, Inshallah, "If God wills it."

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